On Thursday, Ottawa City Council gave final approval for a new wing to the Château Laurier hotel, even though many councillors agree with critics who say the Brutalist box will disfigure the building.
The councillors, in choosing not to reconsider a similar vote held Wednesday, say the developer could sue and would likely win if they voted no at this late stage.
A design that is widely loathed throughout the city and beyond will become part of a building that is so integral to the capital that some call it the Third House of Parliament. But this is only the latest, and far from the worst, example of how bad planning policy, weak political leadership and interjurisdictional wrangling uglify Ottawa.
“There are too many cooks in the kitchen,” explains Ian Lee, who teaches at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business, and who has long been a vocal critic of planning decisions in the national capital.
For the worst example of how those cooks have messed up the city, walk a few blocks east of the Château to the intersection of King Edward Avenue and Rideau Street.
Between 9:40 a.m. to 10:10 a.m. on Thursday, 102 tractor trailers or other large trucks made a left or right turn at the bedraggled intersection. Trucks trying to cross between Ontario and Quebec are forced into downtown Ottawa thanks to an unfinished expressway that was halted decades ago because of civic protests.
Numerous plans for a relief bridge to divert truck traffic away from the downtown have come and gone. In the meantime, the incessant traffic has badly damaged the surrounding neighbourhoods.
To build a new interprovincial bridge would require the approval, and financial support, of the Ottawa and Gatineau municipal governments, the Ontario and Quebec provincial governments, the National Capital Commission (NCC), which is the federal agency responsible for preserving and developing the national capital region, and other federal departments.
“These failures aren’t the result of incompetence," Prof. Lee said. "There are simply too many jurisdictions, each with their own mandate ... with no overarching institution in charge.”
Canada’s weak sense of self also plays a part. Many Canadians resent paying for the national capital, which they see as remote at best and hostile to their regional interests at worst. This is why government office buildings were thrown up on the cheap in the days of Pierre Trudeau, and why no politician, including his son, is willing to invest in the repair of 24 Sussex Drive, formerly the prime minister’s residence. Someone would have stripped the copper wiring from the abandoned house by now if the RCMP weren’t still keeping an eye on it.
Old-timers will remember the futile effort to save the Daly Building, a beautiful Chicago-style structure that once stood beside the Château Laurier at Rideau Street and Sussex Drive. After years of wrangling and failed efforts to restore the former department store, the NCC allowed it to be demolished in 1991-92 and replaced with a nondescript condo building.
LeBreton Flats is the most notorious example of planning paralysis. The industrial slum was razed in the 1960s. But turf wars and general small-mindedness have kept the acreage empty for half a century. The latest scheme to develop the Flats fell through earlier this year when Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk abandoned plans to build a new arena on the site.
As I wrote last year, there are many things to love about Ottawa. The parks are awesome, the neighbourhoods attractive and the food scene increasingly impressive.
Major venues such as the National Arts Centre and the old train station (which is now the temporary home of the Senate) have been beautifully renovated. A booming tech sector leavens the bureaucratic monotony of the place.
The city’s population has passed the one million mark. Phase one of the new light-rail system might start carrying passengers this fall, more than a year behind schedule, although a jaded populace will believe it when they see it.
But as the debacle with the Château Laurier reminds us, jurisdictional rivalries continue to result in bad decisions and missed opportunities.
The city dreams of fixing the mess at King Edward and Rideau by building a traffic tunnel under the downtown, at a cost of $2-billion. Yeah. Right.